As a US permanent resident, you need to file Form N-400, along with supporting documents, to apply for citizenship. An interview with a USCIS officer is required along with tests of history, civics and English language ability. If everything goes well, you can take the Oath of Allegiance and obtain a Certificate of Naturalization. The problem, of course, is that everything doesn’t always go well.

To obtain citizenship, the USCIS must determine that you are a person of “good moral character” after examining your background. Good moral character is a formal requirement with a very specific legal meaning. Unpaid taxes and delinquent child support obligations can definitely affect your chances of being granted US citizenship.

What is “Good Moral Character”?

Put succinctly, a person of good moral character is someone whose behavior is consistent with the expectations of a law-abiding society in the community in which he or she resides. This means more than simply refraining from committing crimes, however. You must also manage your affairs in terms with general moral expectations, and your debts are relevant to the extent that failure to pay them raises questions about your moral character.

Permanent and Temporary Bars

Certain behaviors can result in you being barred from citizenship. The USCIS applies two kinds of bars — permanent bars to citizenship and temporary bars to citizenship. Permanent bars apply to serious crimes such as rape and drug trafficking. It is dangerous to submit a citizenship application if you are subject to a permanent bar, because you could not only be turned down for citizenship, you could be detained, deported and barred from re-entering the US.

Temporary bars apply to less serious crimes and to non-criminal behavior such as alcoholism. These bars are temporary because the USCIS only looks back five years to find them (three years if you are married to a US citizen). If you are subject to a temporary bar, your citizenship application will be denied, but you will remain a permanent resident and you can re-apply for citizenship as soon as your record has remained clear for the last five (or three) years.

Unpaid Child Support

Failure to comply with court-ordered child support payments is considered a serious matter that can sometimes result in incarceration. The USCIS will also hold this against you, regardless of whether the court that ordered you to pay is located in the United States or abroad. The USCIS can impose a temporary bar to citizenship on the basis of unpaid child support.

Since the real issue is your moral character, not your finances, the USCIS might refrain from issuing a bar if you can establish extenuating circumstances. Unemployment may or may not be considered an acceptable extenuating circumstance, depending on the reason for your unemployment. Medical disability, for example, might be viewed leniently by the USCIS, as might a demonstration of reasonable efforts to pay.

Since child support is considered a legal as well as a moral obligation, however, you are not necessary in the clear just because no court has yet ordered you to pay child support. If you are the parent of a child (under 18), you will be expected to pay your fair share of child support even without a court order. Of course, the USCIS will consider extenuating circumstances in this situation as well. If you are a man, for example, you might reasonably doubt your paternity.

Unpaid Taxes

Unpaid taxes are likely to affect your citizenship application, but it is not impossible for your application to be accepted despite a delinquent tax bill. It all depends on how much you owe, how long you have owed it, and why you haven’t paid it. Some examples follow:

  • If your failure to pay taxes adds up to intentional tax evasion of more than $10,000, the USCIS will apply a permanent bar (meaning that you will never be eligible for citizenship) and then put you into deportation proceedings.
  • If you committed intentional tax evasion of less than $10,000, the USCIS will probably apply a temporary bar.
  • If your failure to pay your tax bills did not involve any dishonesty, the USCIS is less likely to reject your citizenship application than it would be if you intentionally avoided paying by, say, falsifying your tax return or failing to file altogether. You could still be subject to a temporary bar, however.

One of the most common ways that permanent residents see their citizenship applications denied on the basis of tax evasion is failing to report income earned abroad to the IRS. As a permanent resident, your entire worldwide income is subject to taxation (although tax treaties and the foreign earned income exclusion often reduce the actual tax liability to zero).

The best way to maximize your chances of obtaining citizenship in the face of unpaid taxes is to make arrangements with the IRS or local authorities to pay them, even if you have to set up a payment plan. Your chances for citizenship will greatly improve if your taxes are already paid, even if late, by the time you apply for citizenship. The USCIS might also treat you leniently if you are making late payments on a negotiated payment plan.

Ultimately, the determination of whether unpaid child support or back taxes will prevent the approval of your citizenship application is a judgment call based on the circumstances, at least if your conduct does not add up to a criminal offense.